Questioning Applied Social Science

February 10, 2019

Social sciences continue to spread into realms of life that were previously left unencumbered by economic or psychological calculus. The social realm’s increasing risk aversion invites in more and more expert opinion to vet decisions, major and minor. The lack of due diligence opens one up to liability; disciplines armed only with powerful heuristics are enlisted to provide an erroneous certainty to the arational workings of the human psyche (individual and aggregate). Game theory, decision theory, prospect theory, grand strategy—all vectors for the scientification of human wavering and our limping motivation.

Social sciences are inherently historicizing but are called into uses that require prediction and projection. They derive theory and analytic power through observation of the past becoming the present, but then are forced to rely on that snapshot for imagining how the present becomes the future. Institutions tend to orient themselves toward the status quo, and these disciplines are no different. To predict based on a narrow window of history’s winding path sets one up to miss coming curves. Social science is, in large part, simply post-rationalization.

The use of the current state of affairs as the only basis for projecting into the future is in effect a naturalization of present arrangements and a means of making present conditions, good and bad, ahistorical. The social sciences see the present as merely determined by the tendency of systems to seek greater efficiency and arational evolutionarily determined human cognitive bias, and thus restrict predictions for the future to a linear outgrowth from the status quo. They leave no place for a conscious choice of a different future; they do not allow humans to act in non-animal ways.

Based, as they tend to be, on expensive data, the social sciences rarely are built on conclusions that are fully fleshed out. Experiments using human subjects are difficult to conduct in multiple contexts, in ways that are reproducible, and with large enough sample sizes. What one gleans from these limited experiments is a heuristic, an intuited tendency in human action. But to treat a tendency—a weighted potential—as a certainty is to make a mistake. A decision that calls on a social scientific heuristic—loss aversion, let’s say—reduces a range of probabilities into a binary context e.g. we take action A if the enemy’s loss aversion is less than average.

And yet policy-makers, who tend to be former bros, see the “science” half of the disciplinary realm and assume that it makes the same claim on certainty as the natural sciences, that explanations of human motives are as reducible as an explanation for the moon’s orbit. This illusion of certainty becomes addictive as the risk-averse seek to justify correct hunches, their own expertise, with pseudo-scientific probabilities and heuristics shipped by consultants and think-tanks, who necessarily are vulnerable to manipulation by interested parties, who in delivering a report render the underlying data less open to examination by policy makers (since it’s theoretically already explained in the report), and who distort results to capture the imagination.

And the reason it is so appealing to turn to social science is because these disciplines are in fact extremely powerful, presenting extremely convincing explanations for individual and group human behavior, that are productive for analysis in most cases. Political economy presents a framework for both analyzing human power relations through history and for projecting them forward, and as such, is critical for adepts of almost any other discipline. However, all should be careful to avoid the mistakes of political scientists—who recite the last names of famous economist authors—Hecksher! Rogowski! Fukuyama!—as if they were legal precedents to follow rather than logical arguments to be contested. For in social science, despite gestures toward logical proof and empirical study, all arguments remain open to argument and counter-example and most should be thrown into question every now and then.

No journal-published analysis of institutional forms or transactions costs in inter-ethnic cooperation can ever do justice to the complexity of the human, or to the complexity of the world.


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